Curbside Classic: 1961 Dodge Lancer & 1962 Dodge Lancer GT – How Are We Gonna Make You A Little Less Weird?

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As well engineered as it was, there’s no doubt that the original 1960 Valiant was one of the weirdest-looking automotive confections ever offered to the public. So what happened when the inevitable occurred and Dodge wanted their version?

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Let’s start off with a look back at the Valiant (CC here): Whereas the Corvair was crisp and airy, and the Falcon playfully rotund, the Valiant was very zeitgeist Space-Agey–and that’s putting it politely. However, at least as early-’60s Virgil Exner designs go, it wasn’t that bad, its most ungainly aspect being a C/D pillar angle that’s far more-upright than the windshield rake. Other than that, I characterize it as endlessly fascinating to look at, rather than just plain ugly.

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Dodge, as usual, clamored eagerly for its own version of the Valiant. In 1960, Dodge had decimated Plymouth big-car sales with their relatively more luxurious and slightly more modern-looking full-size Dart, and now wanted to solidify their turf as a purveyor of a full range of  lower-and medium-price automobiles. Highland Park planned on officially designating the 1961 Valiant as a Plymouth, which would leave Dodge dealers without a hot compact to sell.

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Enter the slightly more Americanized Lancer: Gone are the cats-eye tail lamps. Thankfully removed is the “Toilet Seat” trunk stamp. In place of an aggressive, Letter Series 300-inspired grille there was a rather simple, well executed full-width grille. Inside and out, it was also measurably better-finished than its Plymouth counterpart.

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Compared with contemporary Valiant marketing materials, Lancer advertising strove to evoke a rarefied level of elegance (or snobbery). Given the imagery, one couldn’t fault the less-aware for thinking the above ad might be for an Oldsmobile F-85–and the strategic placement of the 770 hardtop helps hide some of the more freakish carryover elements from the Valiant.

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A closer examination of the body aft of the face shows the same undulating curves and random bulges that blessed/burdened the Valiant. Obviously, the Lancer make-over budget was very limited. The Lancer’s nose was stretched a little bit (encouraging the perception that there was added value here) and the character line around the rear wheel was a little less pronounced, but beyond the necessary chrome jewelry, there were few other distinguishing features that justified its price premium over the Valiant.

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Also carried over was sterling performance, which made it one of (if not) the best-performing six-cylinder compacts around; in fact, the base 170-cube Slant Six had as much horsepower as the optional motors in the Falcon/Comet and the Corvair. Upgrades included the 225-cube slant six, with only 10 less horsepower than the 215 cid V8s in GM’s new senior compacts.

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Then there was the potent, if highly temperamental, Hyper Pak option for both Slant Sixes. The 225 version could trounce pretty much every other compact, but rough running made it a less-than-ideal choice for daily driving. And the 170 incher was shockingly rev-happy, willing to turn 6400 rpm before demanding a shift. Even as this ultra-sporty option started fading from the option books, a more direct appeal to sporting interests was building up, one designed to provide visual excitement to complement the robust mechanicals.

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Whereas the 1961 770 hardtop coupe could look as dainty as possible, in the context of its weirdness, the 1962 Lancer GT hardtop donned war paint (and an optional vinyl top) to make those underlying sporting impulses a little more accessible to the immediate touch–although it didn’t help that the sedans’ somewhat “pregnant-looking” roofline had been carried over intact. Chrysler had no budget for a unique coupe roof, and it showed, all too obviously, especially in those rear-most side windows.

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If we swap this faded red paint for a sandier beige color, we’d have my father’s second car.  It was during the period between the loathing of his Corvair and his love of Oldsmobiles that I took a pictorial walk through my uncle’s photo albums to uncover the mystery Dodge for my fifth-grade family-history project. Among a sea of poses next to Impalas, Eighty Eights, Ninety Eights and Coupe DeVilles was one of my father, next to a beige-and-black Dodge Lancer GT, dated June 1969.

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Having moved on from construction to an entry-level lab assistant position at Raychem, my Dad could afford something a little fancier than the red-headed stepchild of a ’60 Corvair 500 sedan. He also needed something that could reliably ascend the Emerald Hills to reach Cañada Community College for his evening classes. Out went the fan belt throwing-Corvair, and in came the semi-sporty and reliable Dodge.

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It wasn’t too long before the combination of the Oldsmobiles swarming around him, his savings and the aging Lancer presented a good opportunity to move on. By the spring of 1970, a lovely Cutlass S (much like the one in this ad, but with a white vinyl top) had inspired a recent trade-in at Paddleford Oldsmobile. Thus did the Lancer become a footnote to a love affair still talked about today.

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I still think my Dad missed out on the affair of his life when he gave up the Dodge. He and his surviving brothers would regard as sacrilege the fact that I find the Dodge far more intriguing than the run-of-the-mill Cutlass of legend, but thankfully only one of them bothers with “this Internet thing”– which means that at least for now, my secret is safe.